Interview with PHIL SOUSSAN
Phil Soussan's most evident contribution to music might be "Shot In The Dark", a song the bass player wrote during his mid-'80s stint with Ozzy Osbourne, but that's just a tip of the iceberg which this man is. Well, "iceberg" isn't the right word for such a hearty person, yet it's all about the depth. As it happens, our every meeting coincides with the release of Phil's new album, and this time "No Protection" got us started. Not only about Soussan's glorious past - that was covered before - but mostly about his present, the time he tirelessly works both in full view on-stage and behind the scenes, configuring the current state and the future of popular music. He's a mover, you know.
- Your new album, Phil, what's special about it?
What's special about it? Well, you know the last album I did was pretty good. It was fun to do but it was what I would call a compilation, a compilation meaning songs one written there, one written here, one written there, and every song put together into a collection written over a long period of time. This album was written at one time from beginning to end, all songs written around the same time, and there's a thread of continuity that goes through it. As I started recording it, I was in my studio and I started coming up with arrangements. When I write songs, I usually write them all on acoustic guitar or all on piano, so as I started putting the songs together I started making demos, and then I had the idea... I said, "You know what? I always wanted to do an album from start to finish where I do everything: write the songs and play the instruments.
- Even drums?
Even drums - everything! So I went to my friend Simon Phillips and played him the demos and I said, "Can you produce or play on these songs?". And he said, "I don't know, I may be able to produce the vocals, but musically you're playing great! Why don't you play drums on them?" I said, "Oh, you know..." And he said, "No, really, I think you should drum". So he gave me a drum kit, a small studio kit, and said, "Here, go mike it up and you're gonna have a lot of fun doing it. Anything you want". I said, "OK, well, I'll try, and if I get stuck I'll call you". "Yeah, if you get stuck give me a call". Years and years ago, I first heard "Maybe I'm Amazed" by Paul McCartney, from his first solo album: he played all the instruments himself, and this was something that always was interesting to me. Why? Some people think it's because of power as you want to be able to control everything, but it's not. I think I wanted to do it is because I wanted to really get inside of music, from every perspective. And it was very difficult to do. But when you come through it, you are a better musician for it: you understand arrangements better, you understand all the instruments better. It takes four times as long to change one part, and I don't have three other guys to say, "Hey, let's change this". I had to change it, record it, change that, record this, and then listen and realize, "No, it's not working. I think I'll do something else". But what I got out of it was a sense in my head that, when I hear an idea now, I can imagine exactly how it should be arranged. And that's something that I was not doing very well before. So it's an amazing exercise.
- But you produced before!
Oh I produced before but without being able to say, "Look, I have four guys here: let's try this - let's try this drum pattern, let's try this bass part, let's try this guitar part, and you play this". And naturally, everybody adapts to it, and it becomes different. Now I can think about it and I can say, "OK, I see how this is gonna work".
- What about critical input, then?
Critical input is much harder because you cannot be objective, that's very difficult. And so you have to start to trust your instincts, you have to say, "I've got an idea, and I'm gonna have two or three changes to this idea", but the best idea was probably the first one, and that's what I'm gonna go with. And that's what I did on this record. But the idea to me was to be able to play something on a guitar and, for a moment, say, "OK, I know how the drums part is gonna be, I know what the bass is gonna do to make it work a certain way". This is a priceless ability.
- How long did it take to make it?
Three years. It's a three years' work. You know I started it about three years ago - maybe I started writing songs a little bit longer but right about that time. Then, a recording process took a long time. The mixing process took about as long as I usually like it to take: I mean I didn't mix it in one go, I mixed it one song at a time.
- You mean you did it in between other things?
Sure, there were other projects going on, some gigs going here and there, going to some concerts, working on others' sessions, doing some other writing... I have my band BIG NOIZE, with Joe Lynn Turner on vocals, and we play from time to time. So I do lots of things. I also do a lot of film work: I did music editorial for film. I did three feature films last year and that took a lot of time. When you get on a feature film, it's like everybody gets on it and everybody's working 24/7 - non-stop. In the middle of the night, you get a call: "Hey, I've got a change for you". Boom!
- It makes me think of two other bass players: Rudy Sarzo, who's very skilful with visuals, and Tony Franklin, who recently went on the road with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Looks like he was missing live atmosphere...
We all are. No matter what I do I have to play live from time to time. If I don't, I'm not happy.
- Isn't it more rewarding financially to be working in a studio?
Uh, I don't know. I mean financially, the whole business is a mess. You know, I'm involved with the Grammy's. I'm a vice president of the Grammy's. What we do is we sit around and we find ways, talking, discussing how to improve the environment of the music industry. Everybody knows the awards show, but the awards show is this (shows a small bit with his fingers) and the Grammy's is this (spreads his arms wide). There are a lot of things that go on with the Grammys beside the awards.
- Vice president: is this an important position?
Well, there are twelve chapters around the country, Los Angeles is the biggest. The Los Angeles chapter has over a third of the entire community, so being a vice president of the Los Angeles chapter is the biggest vice president on the whole board. On the board in Los Angeles are forty five people, while on the boards of some other chapters there are maybe six or seven people.
- So how did you do it?
You get elected, you do a lot of work on the board, you enjoy several terms, and then someone comes up and says, "Hey, we would like you to run for a vice president?" You get a ballot, you make a speech, and all the governing board votes for you. Or they vote not for you!
- Well, I thought the board of the Grammy's are people in their sixties-seventies, like Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan.
The average age of the Grammy's is quite old. The average voting age is something like 43 or 44, and this is one of the things we're trying to correct right now - to change the visibility of the Grammy's. We want people who are in their twenties, we want new up-and-coming stars to be involved with the Grammy's. The problem is, when they're new and they're up-and-coming, they're too busy. They're like, "I don't wanna deal with that! I'm doing concerts. I'm having a good time".
- Right. But do they have expertise?
No, they don't. But I think it's important to have that voice at the [board] table. Look, what do we do? We do the shows, and then we do many other things. MusiCares which raises money for the musicians who have no money, who need money, who need help, financial assistance, whatever. We do archiving and preservation where we do whatever we can to preserve music in every form in history and look out to that. And we have Grammy-U which is Grammy in the schools, an education, programs for young kids. Even if somebody doesn't have experience, there's always one of those three things that they can be involved in. And now we have also added advocacy, which means going to Washington, D.C. and screaming at politicians to say, "Hey! You have to make laws to protect us!" So this work will allow young people, experienced people, not-so-experienced people to find a good position and to bring back something to the community: that's why it's so important.
- And how did you, a working musician, got involved? You just one day decided you'd do something for the business?
Uhu. One thing about me is, I do lots of things. One of the thing that I love to do is invest. I've been investing money and learning the stock market for years, which is fun. So I tend to analyze companies, and I tend to find out and I have good business sense. What I don't like is that my business has some of the worst business sense - some musicians have no business sense at all. And there are lots and lots of people who make good money from the music industry in ways which don't look after the musicians themselves. I'll give an example. I was having a debate with a group of music industry people - unofficially - and around this table were musicians, writers, people from publishing companies, musical business lawyers, record company executives, publicity people, you name it: anyone you can imagine involved. And we were talking about what was important for this, what was important for that, and finally I said, "Listen, if we take all of you people who do not create out of this room, there will still be music. But if we take all of musicians out of this room, all of you other people will be unemployed". So it comes down to the creators of the music, the creators of the product that are not being looked after.
- Talking about products and creators... I can't understand why there are a lot of releases where initial editions are followed in some six months by a special or tour edition. Before, it was an initial one that had bonuses to guarantee some chart action. Now there's no sense in buying something right away. More so, a lot of CDs are out in two versions - a regular one and a special one with bonus tracks, where the latter will cost you just a dollar more. Show me a fool who wouldn't pay such a small extra to get more! So why do the artists lose money in such way?
Well, it's become like a situation now where there are no rules, and people try anything they possibly can to make things work. I've just conducted some research for a project that I'm doing. I can use it with the Grammy's but I'm also involved with a company that's providing tools for independent musicians called Artist Intersect, we have a web site, www.artistintersect.com. It's very interesting to see what's going on. So in the process of this research that I did, I asked people some questions: How much would you pay for a CD? What do you think is a fair price? What stops you from buying a CD? Would you prefer a download? Would you prefer a CD? When you buy a CD, what do you expect to see with it? Many, many questions! But really what I wanted to know was two things: What is it that prevents somebody, if this a "Buy" button, from pressing that "Buy" button? And what would they prefer - a CD or download? I was amazed: 95 per cent of people want a CD! If you asked me this before, with all my experience I would say, "No, they want a download. They want the convenience of a download". But that's not true.
- It's not about the sound, let me tell you, it's about having a physical thing in your hands. And about packaging. If I buy a reissue of a classic album and there's only a two page "booklet", I just hate it. And vice versa: for example, with the reissue of Elton John's "Captain Fantastic" came miniature copies of all the original inserts that I had with my LP. It's good to have it, a whole package.
Yeah, I think so. When people say they prefer a CD, they don't want to spend too much - generally, they want to spend between 10 and 12 dollars, they think that's fair. They don't want to spend too much to ship it - they want to make sure that, when the CD arrives, it's not just a plastic jewel case with one small photograph. They want to have something tangible they can read, and that is interesting. To that end, I've always put a lot of attention into packaging; to me, it's really nice. Liker you, I used to love all those albums which open up, with stuff to read, lyrics - all of that.
- But with these updated editions and a-one-dollar-difference editions, artists just invite piracy. Like a new Ozzy box that has everything inside: LPs, CDs, a copy of his cross etcetera - some stuff for crazy collectors. I don't need LPs now, and I'll buy the CDs separately, but the DVD isn't available as a standalone thing which guarantees it'll be up for illegal download. So why is there this approach that makes you lose money?
Listen, this is marketing. And in marketing very often you have more than one entity that is trying to profit, or capitalize, upon a product. So, for example, maybe you have somebody who has bought some rights to some of the songs and who is now offering a different package. Let's say that I sell T-shirts, OK? I say, "Look, I want the rights to sell this album, I want to be able to sell this record. And as long as I make the records and as long as I pay the correct people, I have a right to sell it. And now I can give it away with the T-shirt". But then you come along and say, "Wait a second! Here I can buy the album with a T-shirt, and here I can buy the album at the same price". This guy makes his mathematics, and that guy makes his mathematics, and they come up with the same price, so now you have two competing products. This is what you're trying to describe.
- Not exactly. I, for one, might not need a T-shirt but when it comes to one disc or two discs, that's less or more music, and music is music, it's what I always need.
Maybe a better example is, what people want to do sometimes is re-sell their catalogue over and over again. Let's say that I have a record deal for years, and then one day I renew my deal with a new company, and they put a lot of money into an investment to buy the contract, and they pay me. So they want to re-sell the catalogue, so they're putting a bonus, so people are going to buy the bonus and buy the album, and they're going be able to monetize the deal that they made.
- But I'm talking about new albums and new music...
OK, I don't know, Maybe you have to look in the individual deals. People want something to sweeten the deal, they want a little extra. And sometimes, by giving away an extra disc, you can hurt yourself because you're going to force some people to say, "Hey, I want to make a copy of this and don't want to buy it".
- Your album is a full package, though. So that's what you've been doing for three years?
I did many things over three years. first of all, I did this record, and then, I was recently offered a slot on an album of The David Lynch Foundation - they raise money to teach meditation to people. They teach meditation to kids who have troubles, they teach to soldiers who come back from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, they teach meditation to anyone who's at risk of using drugs and alcohol. They did an experiment in prison in Portland, in the United States, where they went and taught it to a bunch of the prisoners, and crime went down inside the prison. It's amazing, it's a really great program. And the people who are behind it are Paul McCartney, Russell Simmons, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel, Iggy Pop, Dave Stewart from EURHYTHMICS, big names, and they wanted to do a compilation album and put it out to sell to raise money. So they're asking for unreleased masters, and they offered me a slot. I'm very flattered but at the same time I'm aware that these are very big names, so I said, "What I'm going to do?" And I thought, "What I should do is to release something everyone knows about me", so I made my own version of "Shot In The Dark". And just because I'd just finished this record, I talked to a couple of producers, that I wanted to produce it, and then I thought, "Wait a second! I know exactly how to do this". (Laughs.) So I went into the studio, locked the door, and four days later I came out with my version of "Shot In The Dark". And it's doing really well. It's getting a lot of airplay in Australia, and people love the song.
- Do you feel more confident now as a singer?
Oh yeah, definitely! I love singing, I really enjoy it! But I did not for a long time: for me, it was like looking at photographs of myself and thinking, "Ah!" (in mock horror) And then, as I started getting better at it and more confident and able to relax more, I started to enjoy this act of singing. I started singing when I was very young; and I was in a band where the singer would say to me, "Nah, you can't sing. Don't try to sing. Don't sing background vocals". It pissed me off. I'd been singing since before I was in this band, and I liked singing when i was in a choir when I was little, so why should I be in this band with this singer who basically says, "I'm the singer", is it only because he's insecure? But he was a good singer, and for a while I listened to him as I thought that he must've been right. I have jam bands in Los Angeles, we get together, we play cover songs - we play DEEP PURPLE and all the songs that we love to hear. And then I go and play as well. I sing FREE songs, BAD COMPANY songs, some Rod Stewart's stuff, whatever. We all take turns to sing and we have a lot of fun, and people come to see the shows and they have a lot of fun - everyone has a good time. When I started singing, I went to a vocal coach, I had to find my feet again. For years and years, I would do background vocals - people hired me to do that, bands like TOTO and DAMN YANKEES, and I did good work. But singing lead vocals is a different thought process, so I went to a vocal coach and he said to me, "No, you sing great. We just have to undo a couple of things here and there, ba bap ba bap ba bap, and you're going to be just fine, and you can start working on building some confidence". So on this record I'm singing much better than on the last one, I had a lot more experience. But if you were to ask me why I like it, it's not that I like the sound of my voice; what I like about it is that I'm comfortable enough to really start to try different things when I'm singing, and to be relaxed. It's a real pleasure.
- And what about movies?
Movie-wise, I just did the first scene to the Jason Statham / Ray Winstone / Mickey Rourke movie ["13"]. I work a lot with composers. But as a music editor it's very interesting work because what you are doing is styling the mood of the movie. And there's no composer - there's a producer, a film director, a picture editor - the film is coming to you, and you are having to find music that's already there to cut, to give it a musical styling, and that's very tricky to do. And if you can do it, it's wonderful: if they're happy with it, then the movie goes to a composer. They say to a composer, "Take this and copy that. This is how we want it to be, with this music, this type of instrument, type of sound, to find a different melody, to maybe hear a unique thing". Basically, what we do is we sit down and we watch; they find me a clip they need a piece of music for. I work with a company who has 16.000 scores, and I go through scores with musicologists and we find appropriate scores, and I use some of these to make a template - it's called making a temp track. I use pre-existing music to do this; for example, I may want something like Ry Cooder's music for "Paris, Texas" and find a little piece in there, and it's too long so I cut it and add another, different piece of music over it to fit the scene. And then a composer can write around what I've done. I have no desire to be a film composer, it's not for me. The music comes back to me afterwards, and I can mix the score to prepare it for the final stage when they're going to mix it with dialog and sound effects and everything. So there's a creative part and there's a technical part. I love it. I get lost in films. Sometimes people ask how I know if the music is right, and for me, if the whole picture comes alive, then the music's right. That's what I go with. I was cutting a scene for this new Billy Bob Thornton movie where a girl is flirting with a guy and asking him to kill somebody: a part of it is light-hearted, but this is a very serious conversation they're having. And it's very difficult to find the music, and when I finally cut it the while picture was like, "Wow", the hair on the back of my head stood up. (Laughs.)
- Then, you still play live.
With BIG NOIZE, we continue. We played the M3 festival recently, we've been asked to go back to Brazil. We might be looking for a new singer only because Joe Lynn Turner is getting really busy with some of the other things that he's doing. We might do a spell with another singer, it doesn't have to be somebody permanent. It's like with drummers: we have Vinny [Appice] and sometimes we have Simon Wright. When Simon's in the band, we might play AC/DC songs; when Vinny's in the band, we do more BLACK SABBATH songs. And if I wasn't able to do some shows, they could find another bass player - Rudy [Sarzo] or somebody else may come in and play. The whole idea for BIG NOIZE has always been: it's not so much a band, it's more a platform so we can have many big name people come in, and when they do we're going to do some of their songs and some of ours.
- So you only play covers?
We do not play covers, we play our own songs! That's the difference. (Laughs.) But we have a couple of new songs that we play. We record an original song called "Battlefields". But when people come to see the band, they're going to hear some of their favorite songs played by people who made those songs famous. The audience can have a lot of fun, and the band are going to have even more fun. At the M3 festival I couldn't believe it: we were, like, one of the top bands there. There was WHITESNAKE, MR. BIG, everyone else and when I went out with my wife to see WHITESNAKE, in the front of the stage were two big screens showing tweets, and the tweets read: BIG NOIZE, BIG NOIZE, BIG NOIZE... I'm like, Are you kidding? People loved that, they wanted to hear those songs!
- Would you go for a proper band again? Or would it demand too much dedication?
No, I don't think so. I would like to do it. I mean, look at BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION: Glenn Hughes has done that with [Joe] Bonamassa in what, less than a year? It's fantastic. I would love BIG NOIZE to do this! But this schedule isn't going to allow us to do it. We started to do that when we recorded "Battlefields", and I suggested to the guys to turn it into a band. But they went, "Nah, I'm doing this, I'm doing that", so it's a scheduling problem. You have to be at the right place at the right time. Ultimately, I think a band is always the best [option]. And I'd love to go on the road for a few months. I haven't done long tour in a long while; the last time I did was probably with Ritchie Kotzen. These days my friends and everyone is doing a weekend thing - they fly out, they fly back. They do gigs not like on a tour bus traveling around, and I would love to do that again, but we just can't do that much anymore. The concerts are smaller, the money's less, it's always the same. The business has changed, people have a lot more things to spend money on these days. And one time there was only four things you could spend money on: going to the movies, going to a bar, going out to see a concert and going out to eat. That was it. Now you've got Internet, you've got people - everyone - creating music, movies, everything. They're so busy putting their own stuff out, they don't go to concerts. If you were a big band in the Eighties, you were playing Long Beach Arena three nights in a row; today, you're a big band, you're playing "The Key Club", "House Of Blues" for two nights. Instead of playing to 14.000 people, you're playing to 800 people.
- And that makes for a different feeling not only for musicians but for the audience as well.
Absolutely. Absolutely! It's changed. There are very few bands who can go out there and play big concerts: AC/DC, KISS, that's it. I know Gene Simmons very well, I love Gene, and we had discussions about this. He said, "KISS is an institution. People come to a KISS concert not because it's a big concert, it's just a KISS concert is a big concert".
- That's how it was for me at an Ozzy concert when I stopped analyzing it as a critic and started enjoying the show, because he's a great entertainer, a fantastic clown.
Ozzy told me this when I was playing with him. He said, "You know, what we do is vaudeville. Vaudeville is a stage show, it's entertainment. It's not just singing - it's antics, it's moving around, it's clowning around, it's everything. It's a show. Rock 'n' roll is vaudeville on stage". KISS is the same: if you don't like their songs, there's always antics. This stuff is a part of it, it's a part of this important thing. That's the experience of the show.
- How long did it take for you to start act, not only play?
I don't think I do it very well. (Laughs.) There is an identity - you have to be a showman. You have to be! In many respects, I have to do this, and I think I can do it better. The reason I sounded a little uncertain about it is, when I go out with this new album I'm not a bass player: I'm singing and I'm playing guitar.
- Who's going to be a bassist, then?
Not sure. That's a hard question for me. Perhaps, Johnny Griparic who played with SLASH'S SNAKEPIT, he's my favorite bass player. We're good friends, so Johnny will probably help me out with this. We'll see.
- But why is it called "No Protection"?
It has to do with inevitability of life. Something happens to me which makes me realize that no matter what you do we have no protection from life moving us along and its course. You can fight it if you want but these things happen: you get older, you get more experience, you lose loved ones, new kids come along, everything changes. I used to come here (points to the seaside) as a kid, and there was no beach here, and I kind of prefer it like it was before because it reminds me of when I was little. But this is part of life - everything changes, and there's nothing you can do about it. And that's what it means: there's no protection from life's course.
- So no fighting, just surrender?
I don't think it's a question of fighting it or not fighting, it's just a question of the fact that things happen. And these songs are about transitions, they're all some aspects of life's transitions. Writing songs is the only way to me to confront my own feelings, it's a kind of therapy to me.
- Getting it out of your system?
More to the point of understanding what's in my system - and accepting it. That's why I write, that's why I like to write. I have to. Sometimes I get upset or mad, or whatever, so I stay late at night and write lyrics, 'cause it's the way for me to force myself to think about what it is that makes me feel this way.
- But you do write for other people, don't you?
Not so much these days, but yeah, I have written for other people: I wrote for Vince Neil, I wrote for TOTO, I wrote for Steve Lukather, people like these. "Broken Machine" from the "Luke" album is my favorite lyric I ever wrote in my life. In those situations I was allowed my own self-expression, but generally speaking, I like to write for myself because that's really what writing is for me. I can't sit in a room and discuss lyrics with somebody because they don't know what it is that I'm feeling. On music I can collaborate with, that's easy. But there's a few things that I have to do a hundred per cent on my own.
- So what's next for you?
I want to start to write the next record. When you listen to this one, you will find there's a little bit more of a kind of a rock thing going through it, and I want to do my next record with a really great groove stuff, to find some heavy grooves with a funk influence and explore stuff like that. I can almost see what I want to do. I just hate when something is finished, and I'm like, "OK, what's next?" Great - I have to start something new!
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